No less an atheist prophet than Sam Harris has defended, at length, both the use of the term “spiritual” and the value of the experiences to which the term usually applies. “We must reclaim good words and put them to good use”, he says, arguing that “transcendent experiences…should be studied scientifically”.
Cass Seltzer, hero of Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, would agree. Dubbed “the atheist with a soul”, Seltzer is a professor of the psychology of religion who sees in his work the possibility of developing a thoroughly naturalistic account of “religious” and “spiritual” experiences. Far from the stereotype of the disinterested scholar, however, Seltzer’s studies have personal resonance: he is himself prone to experiences of transcendence and awe, sometimes feeling the barriers between him and others slipping away, as if he were bathing in undifferentiated humanity.
I never had a “crisis of faith” – I never held to a faith which could face such a trial – but as a teenager I once, I am convinced, “transcended” my individual consciousness. I was preparing to sing some Elgar in a four-part harmony group, and we were preceded by another student playing the piano. Something about the event – the warmth of the hall on a winter’s night, the smiles on the faces of the audience, the exquisite mastery of the keyboard on display, the excitement of my impending performance – served to trigger the most amazing sense in me, a feeling of happiness, well-being, awe, bigness-and-yet-smallness (as if I was both as big as the Cosmos and as tiny as a human in the Cosmos), contentment, and ease which I have rarely since had the shocking pleasure to undergo.
The performance passed in a blur – I remember only the rapturous response from the audience to what must have been an exceptional round of song. What remains with me much more vividly is that sense of exuberant joy and well-being with which I was visited that night: like liquid gold in your veins, like we are all connected with vibrating threads of energy which reach one to another.
For about a week, I was convinced I’d found God. Then I found Abraham Maslow.
Maslow’s book Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences describes perfectly what I had felt during that concert. His characterization of “peak experience” had all the hallmarks of my overwhelm: “feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of great ecstasy and wonder and awe, and the loss of placing in time and space”. Yes indeed: this was it.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the discovery that my experience was entirely natural (even inducible through pharmacological intervention) did nothing to blunt its power or significance, nor to reduce my sense of excitement. The knowledge this was not God speaking to me, but rather my brain doing backflips, engendered in me not a jot of “disenchantment”. Instead, the revelation renewed my wonder at the capacity of our physical bodies to generate ineffable experiences, and committed me more fervently to a naturalistic worldview in which what awe there is to find will be found in the physical realm.
The tension between Seltzer’s knowledge of his own purely physical nature and his yearning for the mystical animates Goldstein’s work. The naturalist within him wars with his sense that there must be more, that bodies aren’t all there is. At the beginning of the book he chides himself for his transcendent turn of mind: “Cass knows he needs to tamp down his tendencies toward the transcendental. It isn’t becoming in America’s favorite atheist” (p.22). But it soon becomes apparent that this is something he is reluctant to part with:
“This expansion out into the world, which is a kind of love, he supposes, a love for the whole of existence, that could so easily well up in Cass Seltzer at this moment, standing here in the pure abstraction of this night and contemplating the strange thisness of his life when viewed sub species aeternitatis – that is to say, from the vantage point of eternity, which comes so highly recommended to us by Spinoza. Here it is, then: the sense that existence is just such a tremendous thing…” (p. 23-24)
I can relate. Although it may seem odd in an atheist activist, I value my “peak experiences” when I have them, even try to seek them out, “trick” myself into having them. Simply put, they feel magnificent, and I’m reluctant to allow squeamishness on the part of those who think such experiences are “too religious” to restrain me from attaining that sublime sense that “existence is just such a tremendous thing”.
Maslow has my back. “What seems to be emerging from this new source of data”, he says, “is that this essential core-religious experience may be embedded either in a theistic, supernatural context or in a non-theistic context. This private religious experience is shared by all the great world religions including the atheistic ones like Buddhism, Taoism, Humanism, or Confucianism” (p. 28 – yes, Humanism was still then considered a religion).
The true weight of Maslow’s argument here has, I think, been overlooked and underplayed: Maslow is arguing that “visions of God” – the revelations, the pious ecstasies which animated many great prophets and seers throughout millennia and across the globe – are nothing more nor less than the workings of the human organism under particular natural conditions. God is a state of mind – literally. These experiences are “phrased in terms of whatever conceptual, cultural, and linguistic framework the particular seer had available in his time” (p. 20) but are, nonetheless, entirely natural.
This strongly suggests that Seltzer need not be so embarrassed about his “tendencies toward the transcendental”, because an atheist can just as happily lay-claim to “peak experience” as any theist (or deist, for that matter). But perhaps we can go further? Perhaps we can say that it is the atheist and the naturalist who can lay true claim to the loftiest heights of spiritual experience precisely because they are entirely natural, and because it is the non-theist who recognizes them as such. That it is the religious “framework” which has been placed atop such experiences which is the illegitimate and distorting view?
Maslow himself seems to recognize such a possibility. The “highest spiritual values appear to have naturalistic sanctions and…supernatural sanctions for these values are, therefore, not necessary” (p. 36), he says, before quoting John MacMurray:
“Now is the point in history at which it becomes possible for man to adopt consciously as his own purpose the purpose which is already inherent in his own nature.” (p. 39)
What would it take for Humanists to take back spirituality, to re-cognize transcendence, to infuse Humanism with a “soul” it has hitherto been lacking? How can we all, like Cass Seltzer, become “atheists with a soul”? Maslow suggests that “In their revolt against the organized, institutionalized churches, [non-theists] have unwittingly accepted the immature and naïve dichotomy between traditional religion (as the only carrier of values), on the one hand, and, on the other, a totally mechanistic, reductionistic, objectivistic, neutral, value-free science” (p. 40). In so doing, he argues, Humanism “leave[s] out too much that is precious to most human beings” (p. 40).
We need not fully agree with Maslow’s characterization here to recognize that there is some truth to his charge: Humanism has traditionally “left out” much of human value from its purview. In banishing God we have too often also banished those practices we deem too closely associated with “religion”: communal song, ceremony, ritual, meditative contemplation, awe and wonder, even story, myth, and fable. All these have been exorcised from Humanism like so many ghosts – and the transcendental is the most abhorred specter of all. Like Seltzer, we think transcendent experience does not become us atheists, so tainted has it become by its close association with the dogma and authoritarianism of traditional religion.
I want it back. Religion cannot keep transcendence to itself. Under the auspices of a new Humanism these areas of value will retake their place in the pantheon of human experience, reconceived and better-understood as the natural expressions of a biological organism that they truly are. No longer will we wall-off some of the very finest pleasures of existence under the belief that they are “not becoming” of atheists, denying ourselves the full richness of life to avoid being tarred with a “religious” brush.
And if this confronts us with some challenging contradictions, then so much the better. For, as Goldstein reminds us at the close of her novel, “to be human is to inhabit our contradictions…we try, as best we can, to do justice to the tremendousness of our impossible existence” (p. 344). To do full justice to the tremendousness of our existence – this one existence we know we have – will require us Humanists to rediscover our “soul”. We must take seriously that there are sides to our experience which have for centuries been colonized by religions, but which could be reclaimed – natural experiences which can now be liberated from their supernatural dungeon and brought into the light of reason. We must take back communal song, and wild dance, and myth, and ritual, and wonder. We must reach for the Olympian peaks of transcendence even though we realize that, atop those peaks, no Gods reside.
So here I sit, in a room that is perhaps over-warm but which is perfect on a cold fall night, surrounded by friends of the Humanist persuasion, tapping at the shallow keys on my laptop. And there you sit, dear reader, reading this perhaps at a desk, or in a coffee shop, or on a train or, if you are lucky, tucked up in bed. Let us both stop a while, allow ourselves to inhabit this thisness, and strive for “the sense that existence is just such a tremendous thing”…!
It’s perfectly natural.